Denise Moreland's Blog
March 5, 2020
When the systems that we work (and live) within fail us, and leaders engage in conduct which is, at best misguided, or at worst, corrupt, we have choices on how to respond.
We can become perpetually fearful, focused on whether (or when) everything we value will collapse around us, dreading the future and feeling paralyzed in the present.
We can become apathetic, disengaging from that which makes us fearful. We can pretend that all is well when we know it is not. There are many pressures at work and in life to occupy our time and attention to distract us from thinking about the systems that form the context for our daily lives.
We can become cynical toward leaders and about the systems that fail to live up to our expectations.
Given these choices, I’d like to make the case for cynics.
Cynics are not naive about human nature. They are skeptical about people’s motives and institutional integrity. Cynics are not afraid to speak up, often through sarcasm and rebellion, when things go awry.
As a manager, I learned not to be afraid of cynics who reported to me. In fact, I even recruited a few. Cynics are difficult. They are critical, often negative, sometimes angry, and challenge leaders, sometimes publicly. They constantly test a leader’s sincerity and truthfulness. They do not tolerate hypocrisy or corruption in people of the structures around them.
Cynics also are almost always right. We need to listen to them. Usually, underneath cynical criticism and sarcasm is something rather remarkable—idealism. I have found that most cynics are frustrated idealists who live in the tension between what is and what could be.
Cynics may have traded optimism for pessimism and hope for anger, but they have not abandoned the ideals or the principles that guide their thinking. You cannot be a cynic if you don’t think we can and should do better. If leaders can find a way to inspire hope and optimism for a brighter future, and gain their trust, which is painstakingly slow, cynics will become our moral leaders, but only if we listen.
If you know any cynics, instead of being frustrated by their complaining, ask them to share their ideas about how to improve the current state. Ask them about their ideals and principles and why they hold them. Listen to them and do what you can join them in their ideals and support their ideas for improvement.
January 22, 2020
Great leaders inspire us, engage us and show us a glimpse of a better future. Great managers create structures and processes that are logical, smooth and efficient, making us feel connected to a larger purpose.
The magic that makes leaders and managers great, however, goes beyond these observable traits to something that is more visceral—they make us feel safe, seen and valued.
Organizational leaders often underestimate the power of safety, which is why so few achieve greatness, despite their brilliance and skills. They fail to grasp Abraham Maslow’s truth that after physiological needs, the need to feel safe is essential before people behave in ways that resemble commitment, collaboration or creativity. Employees will always “play it safe,” being tentative, risk adverse and keeping to themselves if they do not feel safe.
Safety is more than minimizing the risk of physical harm, which is the focus of most workplace safety programs. To feel safe enough to let down our guard, we need to know we will not be psychologically, emotionally or financially harmed if we make mistakes or are even perceived as having made mistakes. Fear of punishment, a symptom of not feeling safe, is the greatest threat to engagement and productivity in the workplace, especially in this age of increased focus on employee accountability.
Great leaders and managers create a sense of safety by welcoming challenges and embracing diversity of styles, methods, ideas and expressions rather than judging them. Great leaders and managers don’t punish people for making honest mistakes. They do not wield their immense power over people but set it aside, treating employees as equal human beings to the greatest extent possible.
Great leaders and managers are aware that everything they do is amplified by the power of their position. They are careful not to appear threatening and they manage their emotions professionally, even when they are frustrated or angry, so as not to foster fear in the people they manage. One single outburst of anger or judgment hurled at an employee can forever destroy a sense of safety for the whole organization.
If you are a leader or manager, do you make the people around you feel safe? Do they fear you or do they trust that you will not harm them? If you are an employee, how safe do you feel to tell the truth, do your best work enjoy a sense of fulfillment? Can you increase your safety by talking to your supervisor or manager about how you feel? If not, think about what else you can do to achieve more safety at work and in your life. Your life matters. You have the right to feel safe.
December 14, 2019
In this season of increased darkness, we are drawn to reflect on the interplay between darkness and light. We celebrate the solstice and many seasonal holidays as our hemisphere shifts once again toward the sun, bringing more light to our future.
Someone once told me that in stories and metaphors cultural bias can be most hidden and most prevalent. In our metaphors of light and darkness, I was told, we hold a strong cultural bias toward light and against darkness, which can have the unintended effect of reinforcing racism. As a “light” skinned person, I had never even considered how dark/light metaphors might be perceived by people with darker skin than my own. Now, I see all over our culture, especially at this time of year, our favor for light over darkness.
We are taught since childhood that darkness is evil and light is good. In darkness lurks danger. In light there is safety. The long night of suffering gives way to the the healing of the day. Night is filled with fear and anxiety. The light of day is full of hope and possibilities.
What if we abandoned dualistic thinking of good versus bad, and reimagined the darkness to be good, as good as the light?
In darkness, we sleep, we heal, we are refreshed and rejuvenated. Darkness brings us a sense of calm, peace and quiet. In the stillness of darkness, we are safe. We are secure. We are free from distractions and can become centered in our being. In the midst of darkness life is created, formed, nurtured and birthed.
Could we grow to love darkness as much as light? Can we embrace all that is, rather than pitting differences against each other? Can we be inclusive in our actions as well as our metaphors? Yes! Let’s!
Happy Winter, the season of darkness. May you find in your center a sense of calm, quiet, safety and peace.
October 14, 2019
We live in a fashion-driven culture that impacts every sector of our lives. What was trending last year (or yesterday!) is soon considered passé. Fashion changes are most noticeable in clothing, technology, language, music, and, for me, glasses. Just when I think I have finally caught up with the spectacle trend, it has changed again, leaving my face perpetually dated.
Management has fashion trends too. For several years, employee engagement has been all the rage. Now it seems we are moving to a new focus area–accountability. How do we make people accountable? What does accountability mean? How do we measure it? Is accountability merely a euphemism for knowing who to blame when things go wrong?
On the surface, accountability is about getting work done, which we want to measure using data, another concept that is fashionable these days. For some jobs, data is easy to find; for others, it is challenging. We can spend inordinate amounts of management time trying to decide what to measure, and then try to figure out how to measure it. Key performance indicators and metrics can be useful to provide insights about productivity and progress toward work goals in order to hold employees and managers accountable for their work. But that is not the whole story on accountability.
On a deeper level, accountability is about integrity, responsibility and trust. Do people follow-through on their agreements? Do they take responsibility for mistakes and step up to solve problems? Are people trustworthy and trusted to do the right thing, even if it is not expedient or popular?
Accountability is also about having and expressing mutual respect for everyone, and about working collaboratively within and across teams. Are teams productive and functional, complementing each other’s strengths and covering for each others weaknesses, or are they in a state of drama and conflict?
To build a culture with high integrity, responsibility, trust, respect and collaboration requires individuals to make a personal commitment to the work and to each other. People must believe in the mission, goals or the value of the work, to decide that committing their time, energy and creativity is worth the investment. Commitment of this caliber is an individual choice; it cannot be forced or easily measured with data.
In my view, too much focus on accountability can actually undermine it. Too much focus on measurable goals can create fear for employees “not making their numbers,” and can promote competition and blame where you want collaboration and cooperation. Too much emphasis on accountability can erode trust and responsibility by making it unsafe to take a risk.
In my experience, accountability is by-product of a healthy work environment, not the goal. To make a commitment to the work and each other, people need to feel safe, respected, affirmed and valued. Management would be well served to focus less on accountability and more on creating a safe and healthy work environment. For ideas on how to do this, see my book Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or Amazon.com.
August 27, 2019
“Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” When you have this exchange, you are probably talking with a baby-boomer or traditionalist. “You’re welcome” is a lovely response of hospitality and generosity.
“Thank you.” “No Problem.” Now, you are likely talking with a Gen-Xer. This also is a kind response, reinforcing that helping another is not a burden.
“Thank you.” “Of course.” No doubt you are talking with a millennial. This is my favorite response because I take it to mean, “Because I value you, of course I will do this for you.”
There’s also “Don’t mention it” and “It was my pleasure,” which are also fine responses but I have not been able to correlate to specific generations.
Saying “thank you,” whatever the response, is a social nicety that makes us connect at a level of grace and gratitude. I am a thanker. I thank people all day long. I thank my wife for doing laundry. I thank the neighbor for pulling up my garbage and recycle bins. I thank the people I work with for the work they do, even though they are paid to do it. A colleague of mine, thanks the people she supervises and her colleagues everyday for coming to work. When is the last time you thanked the person that cleans your bathroom at work, shopping center, doctors office?
I have been criticized a few times in my career for saying “thank you” (and “I’m sorry”) too much because, I have been told, these can be perceived as being deferential and weak. In order to be a successful career woman, I should stop saying “thank-you” and “I’m sorry” so much.
Of course, I thanked all of the people who have told me this over the years, and took their suggestions under advisement. Upon reflection, I decided they were right about “I’m sorry” but not about “thank you.” I, and so many women I know, say “I’m sorry” way too much (a topic for another time), but I am not sure that you can say “thank you” too much, any more than you can say “I love you” too much. For those old enough to remember prior to 9/11/01, we didn’t say “I love you” nearly enough—certainly not as much as we do now, which is a good thing to come out of such tragedy.
Saying “thank you” is good for me, for my relationships and for society. It puts me in a mindset of gratitude and elicits “You’re welcome”s, “No Problem”s and “Of Course”s from the people around me, which makes me smile.
Saying “thank you” is good for my relationships. People liked being thanked, even if what I am thanking them for they are getting paid to do.
Communities full of thankful people is also good for society. There is so much stress in life, so much suffering and pain. A heavy dose of kindness and gratitude does much to sooth and connect.
As you go about your week, I encourage you to say “thank you” more and see if it makes a difference in your mindset, sense of joy and relationships. Also, test out my theory about the generational differences in the responses you receive. Please post what you learn here or on social media.
…..and “thank you” in advance!!
For more information about language, culture and how to create a positive, healthy and productive work environment, see my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.
July 30, 2019
When I was growing up in the 1960s, women were routinely referred to as “girls.” The woman’s movement of the 70s and 80s changed the culture so that it became the norm in professional settings and in the media, and much of everyday language, for women to be referred to as “women,” not “girls”—at least for a time. In recent years, I have observed a regression in everyday language, and even in professional settings and in the media, to again refer to women as girls. Is this a big deal? I think so.
First, calling women “girls” is confusing. I heard a newscast about two women in their 60s who went missing. The news anchor kept referring to these women as girls, which I did not understand at first. I had trouble following the story. How many people were missing? Two women and two girls or just the two women? Then, I finally figured out that the two “girls” were the women in their 60s.
Second, referring to man as a “boy” is considered disrespectful. It is equally disrespectful for the female gender to call women “girls,” even if it has become common. This is an example of a double standard in the use of language.
Third, calling women, “girls” carries connotations that live beneath the surface of our awareness, implying that adult females are not fully functioning adults. Girls cannot be expected to make important decisions because they lack life experiences and maturity. Certainly, girls cannot be leaders of men.
Fourth, being called a “girl” is not a positive or even neutral phrase in our culture. “You throw/run/play/cry like a girl” have been the worst insults males can hurl at each other (though female sports heroes are trying to reframe this insult, with a “Thank You!”) Historically, in the hierarchy of ridicule, girls are at the bottom.
Finally, avoiding the word women disempowers the little girls, who aspire to be fully grown women. Think about all the times you have heard a small boy referred to as a “little man,” referencing his accomplishments, successes or appearance at formal events, providing stature to his being. When was the last time you heard a small girl referred to as a “little woman” (other than within the context of the Louisa May Alcott novel, written in 1869)? The most little girls can aspire to is becoming bigger “girls.”
In a professional setting, such as work, I implore you to refer to the adult females you work with as “women,” not “girls.” Please, do not conform to the devolved norms of our culture for the people you manage, your colleagues or even your managers. Adult females are women. Give them the respect they deserve.
Words matter. Use them wisely.
June 14, 2019
Have you noticed in recent years that our everyday language has become weaponized?
We have replaced “tools” and “toolkits” with “weapons” and “arsenals.”
To respond to a crisis, we now have “SWAT teams” who meet in “war rooms.”
When we need more power at the table, we bring out the “big guns.”
People who are amazing are now “the bomb.”
When someone does a good job, they “killed.”
In taking drastic steps, we now exercise the “nuclear option.”
When someone is blamed, they are “thrown under the bus.”
Think about that last one for a minute. We have actually turned a bus into a weapon. I remember the first time I heard someone throw someone else “under the bus,” I got an image of a school kid getting run over, which was distressing and appalling. I remember thinking, “What a terrible phrase!” Then, I started using it, along with all of the others above, without giving it a second thought, because it is part of the culture and I want to fit in.
Does it matter that we have moved toward weaponized language? Does this shift reflect a higher tolerance for violence? Does it reinforce and perpetuate it? I think so. I believe that using metaphors of weapons desensitizes us to violence.
I have decided to be more intentional about my use of language to bring as much peace into my everyday conversations as possible. If you agree, please join me. Let’s take this small step to change the culture!
For radical ideas on how to improve the work culture (and larger culture), please see my book, “Management Culture” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.
April 15, 2019
When people are driving, it is important for everyone to stay in their lanes, and only switch lanes when it is clear. Driving is a complex activity with a simple goal—get from point A to point B, as safely and (usually) as quickly as possible.
“Staying in your lane” is appropriate for achieving simple and linear goals. However, it is not the best approach for complex work that requires multiple perspectives, human creativity and collaboration. For example, in designing roads, it is necessary to incorporate many perspectives, including drivers, driverless cars, mass transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, neighborhoods, environmental and aesthetic considerations, as well as material science and engineering principles. Each of these points of view must be blended into solutions that are workable, if not optimal, to everyone involved or impacted by road design decisions.
In my experience, most work is more like designing roads than driving on them. There is too much “stay in your lane” messaging when “get out of your lane” thinking is required to solve complex problems. At first glance, “stay in your lane” might seem to make sense in terms of dividing work and responsibility. However, it stifles creativity and keeps everyone thinking too small.
“Stay in your lane” thinking leads to failure of the whole because there is no cross-over of ideas among the parts and too few people take responsibility for the big picture. To be successful, the parts must listen to and see each other, ask questions and offer ideas outside of their “lanes,” and to see the larger patterns and inter-dependencies.
So many times, I have seen the breakthrough ideas, or the seeds of them, come from people with the least amount of expertise in where teams are stuck. Expertise itself can become a trap of well-worn, familiar roads, where you can no longer see the landscape or detail—like driving on auto-pilot. Being forced to answer simple (“stupid”) questions and respond to fresh (“radical”) ideas from non-experts has a way of causing the experts to identify their basic assumptions, see the landscape with fresh eyes and possibly discover new avenues of thinking. When teams get to learn about other lanes, routes and geographic layers of the road, people become more invested, more satisfied and more trusting of one another.
In my career, I have worked with two managers, Deb Donohue and Barry Caplin, who were brilliant in creating team structures that required people to get out of their “lanes.”
Deb had a team of 10-12 analysts, with a lot of complex work to cover. She and the team identified the domain areas and designated leads for each domain, based on people’s interest and expertise. The leads became the experts and decision-makers for their areas. Others on Deb’s team were designated as team members for each domain, responsible to back-up the leads and serve in an advisory capacity to the team leads. Everyone on Deb’s team was a lead for at least one domain, and participated as a team member for 2-3 other domains. This structure clearly defined who was responsible for each domain, but gave non-lead, team members voice to offer feedback and ideas.
Barry had a similar approach. He also designated domain leads who were decision-makers but he expected everyone on the team to provide their perspectives, ideas, opinions and feedback for domains they did not lead. It was an expectation that each lead vet their ideas with all other team members. All were leaders and all were team members. No one was ever told to “stay in their lanes” because they were all responsible for each other’s success and the whole.
If you are an organizational leader, think about how to create structures that encourage people to get out of their lanes to ask questions, offer ideas and feedback outside of their primary areas of expertise. If you do this, you will get better decisions and more productive and satisfied teams. Most people don’t want to “stay in their lanes.” They want to learn, offer ideas and contribute broadly. “Stay in your lane” thinking and messaging doesn’t allow people to bring all of their curiosity and creativity to work. For today’s challenges, we need all of the curiosity and creativity we can get!
February 18, 2019
When I look back on all the jobs I’ve had, the ones that have given me the most sleepless nights have in common a continual fear of being criticized. An email from the “boss” or a request to go to their office could send me spiraling down an anxiety hole that made it difficult to even focus on what they were actually trying to say to me.
Conversely, the jobs I love had none of this. I felt supported in my decisions and knew that my boss “had my back” when I made decisions and even took risks. Even if there was a question about why I did this or decided that, we had a conversation based on curiosity, not criticism.
Criticism, and the constant fear of criticism, kills creativity because creativity requires a sense of safety. Safety is not possible when you are in a constant state of dread that you will be corrected.
Criticism also kills collaboration because working together requires trust and openness to explore new possibilities. When groups fear criticism, they are not willing to throw out new ideas or take chances. Instead, they do exactly what they are told.
The expectation and common experience of having a critical “boss” stems from an underlying cultural assumption that people with more authority have superior intellect, judgment and experience compared to their subordinates. It assumes the boss is always right and employees must be taught how to do their jobs correctly.
The presumed superiority of “superiors” (it’s even in the language!) is so strong that supervisors who are not even intending to be critical will be perceived as such because for most of us the fear and dread left behind by past experiences, lingers. Bold leaders must go out of their way to be supportive and provide safety for employees to counteract the fear of criticism and change the culture of management.
There are countless ways to do anything. If we want creative employees and collaborative teams, we must change the culture of management to allow more paths to get our organizational goals. Supporting employees and “having their backs” even when we would have taken different paths is a great place to start.
For more radical ideas on leadership and how to create a work environment that is creative and collaborative, see my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees at mgmtculture.com or on amazon.com.
December 10, 2018
“The Boss is Always Right” is the most dangerous unwritten rule that we follow in the workplace. Pretending that bosses are always right, even when they are not undermines the organizational mission, work goals and healthy relationships. It breeds a culture of deceit.
Of course, the boss is not always right. People in positions of authority are not infallible. Leaders make mistakes at the same rate as all other humans. We know this is true, but there are cultural rules that prohibit us from pointing out when bosses make mistakes or even challenging decisions that don’t make sense from our perspective.
People are required to comply with the “boss is always right” rule because to behave otherwise can bring on the wrath of the boss and could even end a career. Because the personal stakes are so high, we pretend that bosses are always right. Then we are expected to clean up their messes without complaining, and we wind up talking about their mistakes behind their backs.
Think about the feedback imbalance. While it is management’s job to evaluate employee decisions, work products and performance, it is seldom OK for an employee to make any kind of judgement of management decisions or actions. Employees are expected to do what they are told, without question and without criticism. Any feedback perceived to be negative toward management is considered insubordination. This does not serve the work or the organization. It only serves the ego of leaders.
Imagine if this were not true. Imagine a workplace where the goal of our collective efforts is to do the best work possible, without having to be careful with people in positional power. Imagine if everyone could provide honest feedback on everyone’s decisions, work products and performance. Honesty would be the standard and quality would be the result.
I want to work at a place that openly looks at plans, decisions and directions from a variety of perspectives, fully vets concerns, and has a collective goal of doing our very best work. I want to work where employees are not required to manage the boss’s ego. How about you?
If you are a leader, welcome challenges, welcome feedback, and require the people with less positional power to tell you when they think you are about to make a mistake. The quality of the work will improve. Productivity will improve. Engagement will go through the roof!